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By Thomas Harder
Translated by W. Glyn Jones
When Italy entered the Second World War on 10 June 1940, the Lloyd Triestino ship Duchessa d’Aosta was on its way from South Africa to Genoa with a cargo of wool, hides, asbestos and copper. Like many other Italian ships, the Duchessa d’Aosta also sought refuge in a neutral port, in this case Santa Isabel on the island of Fernando Po (today Bioko, the capital of Equatorial Guinea, 750 km southeast of Lagos). Fernando Po was then a Spanish colony and thus neutral territory. The Duchessa d’Aosta and her crew came to spend eighteen months there.
The Italians’ safe but dreary life on this tropical island came to a sudden end during the night of the 14th-15th January 1942. While the officers from the Duchessa d’Aosta were at dinner in the Santa Isabel casino together with their colleagues from the German tug boat the Likomba, which was in the same situation as the Italian ship, two British tugs from Lagos, their lights extinguished, sailed into the harbour at Santa Isabel. All lights in the town were routinely switched off at midnight, and there was no moon that night, but for safety’s sake, the British agent who had organized the dinner had arranged the seating at table in such a way that the Italian and German officers sat with their backs to the windows facing the harbour.
One of the British tugs launched two kayaks. The first of them put two men on board the Likomba, the local guards on which immediately jumped overboard when the crew of the other kayak blew up the anchor chains on the German vessel by means of specially constructed bombs. At the same time, the other British tug slid up alongside the Duchessa d’Aosta and put a boarding party on board.
The taking of the Duchessa d’Aosta was almost equally unproblematic. The 29 crew members on board surrendered without a struggle, and the attackers could blow up the anchor chains fore and aft according to plan.
By 00.30, both tugs had left the harbour again with their prizes in tow. Not a single shot had been fired throughout the entire operation, and no one in Santa Isabel had managed to discover what was taking place before the operation was completed. When the ships’ officers reached the harbour again, their ships had long disappeared into the darkness.
After a voyage lasting six and a half days, the two tugs and their spoils entered Lagos harbour, accompanied by the British corvette H.M.S Violet, which had been sent out to “discover” the Duchessa d’Aosta and theLikomba “adrift” in the open sea and to accompany them to a British port. The illegal seizure (codenamed "Operation Postmaster") could well have damaged relations between Great Britain and Spain, so it was imperative as far as possible to hide the fact that the British were behind this operation.
Nor was it regular British soldiers who took the Duchessa d’Aosta and the Likomba, but on the contrary a mixed force of some 40 men made up of British volunteers from Nigeria, local agents from the sabotage organisation Special Operations Executive (SOE) and the so-called Maid Honor Force of 11 men sent from England by the SOE in order to sabotage German and Vichy French targets in West Africa. The Maid Honor was a small sailing ship which, with five SOE agents as its crew had sailed the 3,185 nautical miles from Poole on the British channel coast to Freetown in Liberia in 41 days. The SOE had hoped that the Maid Honor could be useful in West Africa. It could not, but the crew and their six comrades who had sailed on a steamship from England to Liberia could. These men became the heart of the force that carried out the coup in Santa Isabel.
One of the five who had sailed from Poole to Freetown in the Maid Honor was the young Dane Anders Lassen. He had been at sea since the beginning of 1939 and was one of the few professional seamen who took part in the operation. His maritime experience, together with his physical bravery and great energy was of crucial importance to the success of the operation.
Anders Frederik Emil Victor Schau Lassen was born on 22 September 1920 in a patriotic landowner family with strong military traditions. From early childhood, Anders Lassen had been fond of spending time in the woods surrounding the family home. He was keen on hunting and he learned to move quickly and silently in the countryside and in time became a true marksman.
Anders Lassen was no intellectual. He left the local secondary school in the summer of 1938 with the poorest examination result of the year. He dreamt of a life as a landowner, but the family finances were under pressure, and he lacked the finances to establish himself. His dreadful examination results made it difficult for him to find work, and the upshot was that he went to sea for the want of other ways forward. He occasionally considered a military career as a slightly less humble alternative, but he failed to do anything about it and in time came to terms with life at sea. He got on well with his colleagues, enjoyed their comradeship, the binges, the fights, the visits to brothels when ashore while at the same time his upper class background persuaded him to establish a certain ironical distance to himself as a sailor.
When Germany occupied Denmark on 9 April 1940, Anders Lassen was on board the Danish tanker M/T Eleonora Mærsk in the Persian Gulf. Immediately after the occupation, the Danish government ordered Danish ships in foreign waters to make for German, Italian or neutral ports, but the crew of the Eleonora Mærsk refused to obey and instead forced the skipper to make for a British port in Bahrain.
After this, the Eleonora Mærsk sailed under the British flag, first to Colombo, Australia and Singapore, and then on a regular route between South Africa and the Persian Gulf. The ship was provided with a gun, and Anders Lassen became a member of the gun crew. He was proud of this exciting responsibility, as he was each time he carried out some particularly difficult or dangerous task “with honour”, as he wrote in his diary.
In October 1940, Lassen went ashore in Cape Town and signed up on a British tanker sailing from South Africa to Scotland. It was attacked by German aircraft on the way, and Lassen had plenty of use for his skills as a gunner. He signed off in Scotland that Christmas and made for Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Throughout his life, Lassen had been surrounded by relatives, friends or school mates and shipmates, and he was now alone for the first time in his life. He spent a couple of weeks drunk and confused in a dark, wintery Newcastle until he established contact with the Special Operations Executive, which had just started recruiting Danes for underground work in occupied Denmark.
In January 1941, Lassen started in one of the SOE training schools for future agents and saboteurs. A restless person, he felt the training to be tedious and unimaginative – and things were not improved by the fact that, for security reasons, the SOE could not tell its trainees what it was they were being trained for – and he only really began to settle down when sent to one of the SOE “paramilitary” schools in the Scottish Highlands. There, Lassen was in his element. He found comrades, a wild countryside, shooting, fighting and other physically demanding activities and in general an environment that challenged his talents and valued all those things he was good at and enjoyed tackling.
Lassen’s superiors noticed that his quick temper, his lack of discretion and his contempt for rules made him unfit for both spy work and ordinary regimental service, but that he was brilliantly suited to patrol work and to guerrilla warfare. So in April 1941 he was transferred to the new Maid Honor force, and the following January he had his dramatic, but bloodless “baptism of fire” in the port of Santa Isabel.After the seizing of the Duchessa d’Aosta and the Likomba, Lassen spent some time in Nigeria, where as a member of the SOE he trained members of local tribes in guerrilla warfare and sabotage. He enjoyed the freedom and the sense of responsibility combined with independence, but he missed what the war primarily meant to him. He wrote in his diary: “Some time ago, I refused the offer of a very interesting job – it gave me no chance of slaughtering any of the devils, and so I refused it.”
Lassen’s first direct confrontation with the enemy that had occupied his country came in the autumn of 1942, when he became a member of the Small Scale Raiding Force (SSRF) that had been established on the initiative of the head of the Maid Honor force, the charismatic Captain Gustavus March-Phillipps to carry out attacks on German positions along the Channel coast. Lassen and his companions in SSRF were taken across the Channel in a motor torpedo boat equipped with a special sound-proofed motor, landing on the German-occupied British Channel Islands or on the French coast, killing or kidnapping German soldiers and gathering information on German defence installations and so on. The attacks, which were made by night, helped to pin down German resources in northern France and thus keep them away from the Eastern Front, where the Russians were hard pressed, and from North Africa, where British and American troops landed in November 1942.
In February 1943, Anders Lassen was moved to Egypt, where he joined a recently established amphibious force, the Special Boat Service. The SBS carried out its first major operation in July 1943, when SBS forces attacked German airfields in Crete and Sardinia. In Crete, a patrol under the command of Anders Lassen undertook a two-week march through the mountains to reach the airfield at Kastelli Pediada, where they destroyed a German aeroplane and killed a sentry and then left the island along with two other patrols that had carried out similar attacks on other targets. In Sardinia a patrol under the command of Captain John Verney (who later became a well-known author and illustrator) managed to destroy four German aircraft on a base near Ottana, but both Verney’s patrol and the other SBS members who had been landed on Sardinia were taken prisoner by Italian carabinieri and soldiers.
The attacks on Crete and Sardinia were elements in a major diversionary manoeuvre intended to convince the Germans that after taking North Africa the Allies would attack Greece and/or Sardinia, but not Sicily. This manoeuvre was a major contributory factor in ensuring that the landing in Sicily in July 1943 did not meet much stiffer opposition than was in fact the case.
After the Italian capitulation on 8 September 1943, British forces – with the SBS as an important supporting element – made a vain attempt to establish control over the Aegean before the Germans could take over the islands. The attempt failed, but until the Germans finally began to pull out of Greece in autumn 1944, the SBS continued to play an important part in the guerrilla war being fought by the British. From secret bases along the neutral Turkish coast, SBS patrols in Greek caiques or British patrol boats repeatedly sailed into the Aegean and attacked German bases. Lassen distinguished himself as the leader of these operations, which tied down considerable German forces that could otherwise have been used on the Eastern front or to oppose the Normandy landings. In addition they helped ensure contact with spy groups and resistance groups operating behind the backs of the Germans – some of them completely Greek, others consisting of both Greek and Italian soldiers who had gone underground after the capitulation.
Lassen, who was promoted to the rank of major in the British army in October 1944, took part in dramatic operations in places including Kalimnos, Simi, Santorini and Paros, each time showing himself to be an inspiring leader who always went in the lead. His complete disregard for danger was legendary, and his ability to “read” the terrain and move with lightning speed, invisible and silent, ensured him great respect from his superiors. Lassen appeared to be happiest when he was in action, and his brutality and violent hatred of the Germans surprised some of his colleagues – though they were anything but squeamish. Lassen’s violent temper often found expression in his relations with those under his command, and it is known that on several occasions he resorted to blows in order to gain his will. He was, however, generally well liked and admired and known for only rarely suffering losses in his operations.
In July 1944, the SBS moved its headquarters to Bari. From there, Lassen led a sabotage operation against a railway bridge at Karasovici, south of Dubrovnik. The bridge was to be blown up in order to make the German retreat from Greece and the Balkans more difficult. The operation was a success, but Lassen’s force encountered some Croat ustaše forces. One of the British was killed and two taken prisoner, and the survivors had to hide in the mountains for three days before being able to reach the coast, from where a British patrol boat sailed them back to Bari.
The SBS returned to Greece in autumn 1944. Lassen led an improvised group which on 29 October was the first British force to move into Saloniki. The Germans were preparing to destroy the harbour installations and fuel depots, but a daring bluff on the part of Lassen persuaded the Germans that his small, but very mobile and active force was much bigger than it was in fact, so they abandoned the town without carrying out the planned acts of destruction.
Lassen had plenty of opportunity to satisfy this urge, just as he had a need of all his ability to improvise and gain respect and establish good relations with the Greek civilian population when he was appointed governor of Crete in December 1944. The German garrison amounting to 13,000 men had withdrawn to a “pocket” in northwest Crete, and Lassen’s small and hastily assembled Senforce was to keep an eye on Germans and, as far as possible, to secure British control of Crete and prevent the left wing partisans from seizing power on the island. Apart from the paramilitary training that he had received in Scotland and the instruction he had received from the SBS, Lassen had no formal military training, and aside from his brief period as “dictator” at Saloniki, he had no experience of politics and diplomacy. The two months he spent in Crete made great demands on his personal resources. Relations between left wing partisans and their conservative rivals grew steadily worse, and Lassen’s SBS men were not only attacked by communist partisans, but also by factions in the civilian population whom they otherwise thought they had come to the island to help. Towards the end of Lassen’s “rule” in Crete, two of his men, including a fellow officer, Captain Charles Maurice Clynes, MC, who was a good friend of his, were killed in an ambush, and it was a much relieved Lassen who went to Italy with Senforce at the beginning of February, leaving Crete to a more robust British force. Lassen, however, is given the honour for the Greek civil war in Crete having such a relatively gentle course as it took.
In Italy, the Allied advance had for months been held along the Gothic Line between the River Reno to the north of Ravenna and Massa and La Spezia on the Italian west coast. The Allied Supreme Command planned to break through the Gothic Line in April 1945: The American Fifth Army was to push forward via Bologna and Verona towards the Brenner Pass, while the British Eighth Army, further to the east, was to break through the Argenta Gap (a narrow strip of dry land between the small town of Argenta and the huge flood plains to the west of Lake Comacchio) and further north through Ferrara and Po towards north eastern Italy, Trieste and Gorizia.
To facilitate the Eighth Army’s breakthrough, a number of amphibious operations were to be carried out on and along Lake Comacchio. Lassen was given responsibility for some of these operations: In collaboration with local fishermen, boatmen and partisans from the 28th Garibaldi Brigade, who were used to operating on the shallow, muddy lake, Lassen and his men reconnoitred the German positions and examined the possibility of landing along the banks.
On the night between the 3rd and 4th of April, a mixed force of SBS men under Lassen’s command and Italian partisans occupied a handful of small islands to the north of the Boscoreale peninsula. From here, Lassen and his men carried out attacks over the following days on German positions along the northern and eastern banks of the lake in order to give the Germans the impression that the British were preparing a major attack in this area. The intention was to draw German troops out towards Comacchio and thus away from the Argenta Gap.
The Eighth Army attack was to start on 9 April soon after midnight on the night of 8-9 April, and as a final attempt to distract the Germans’ attention from Argenta, Lassen headed a patrol of 18 men and landed on the spit dividing Lake Comacchio from the Adriatic Sea, a little to the south of Comacchio. Shortly after the landing was made, Lassen’s force was challenged by German sentries. An Italian-speaking member of the SBS attempted to persuade the Germans that the SBS men were local fishermen. For a while it looked as though the bluff would succeed, but then the Germans opened fire from a machine gun emplacement. Lassen stormed the position and overcame the Germans with hand grenades and machine pistols, and when another machine gun emplacement opened fire a little further up the road to Comacchio, he once more defied a hail of bullets and put the German machine gun out of action. More German positions opened fire out in the darkness, and some of them launched light bombs. Two of Lassen’s men were killed and several wounded, so that the overall force was reduced to ten men. Lassen gathered his scattered men and stormed a third machine gun emplacement. The Germans indicated they were willing to surrender, but when Lassen approached the emplacement, they opened fire again, and Lassen was wounded in the stomach or midriff. When Lassen fell, the attack collapsed, and the SBS men withdrew to the boats. One of the men tried to take the badly wounded Lassen with them, but he refused to be evacuated so as not to delay his fellows. Altogether, four SBS men – Corporal Edward Roberts, Trooper Alfred John Crouch, Fusilier Stanley Raymond Hughes and Lassen himself – lost their lives during this unsuccessful attack.
On the following day, the bodies of Lassen and his companions were taken to Comacchio by the local parish priest don Francesco Mariani and some women from the town. They laid out the bodies and buried them in the old cemetery in Comacchio. There they lay until, shortly after the war, they were transferred to the new British military cemetery a little to the north of Argenta.
Anders Lassen was thrice decorated with the British Military Cross. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his gallantry at Comacchio. This array of distinguished decorations, together with the stories of Anders Lassen’s legendary deeds – which were recounted in 1949 by his mother, Suzanne Lassen, in a book entitled Anders Lassen – Sømand og soldat (English version: Anders Lassen, VC – The Story of a Courageous Dane, 1965) have given Anders Lassen an almost mythical status in Denmark. Anders Lassens krig. 9. april 1940 – 9 april 1945 (Copenhagen, Informations Forlag), which was published in November 2010 and immediately became a Danish bestseller, is an attempt to explore behind the myths and to present the historical Anders Lassen and the events of which he formed part.
Of the 29 prisoners from the Duchessa d’Aosta, 27 Italian men were immediately upon arrival transferred to an internment camp in Amuahia in south-eastern Nigeria. An Italian woman and the Spanish cook José Segura are believed to have remained in Lagos. On 15 September 1943, the British War Ministry decided that the 27 could be transferred to South Africa, and on 16 October the Colonial Office decided that José Segura could be released. However, he was not allowed to return to Fernando Po, but had to take work in Nigeria. The author would like to hear from readers who have any knowledge of the further fate of the members of the crew of the Duchessa d’Aosta. The author can be contacted direct on firstname.lastname@example.org – About the author: www.thomasharder.dk